Finding Beauty will be exhibited at the London gallery from 13 October 2015 - 27 February 2016
‘Everything is what it is and not another thing’
Text by Nigel Warburton, from an interview with Saul Leiter 2013
Sometimes words screen us from what is in front of us. In the face of abstraction it is easier to fall back on biographical references, on artists’ statements, on art historical contextualization: these can be alternatives to engagement, ways of avoiding what is in front of you. There is, of course, no innocent eye, no pure retinal experience of painting, but focusing on fact, meaning, and source can undermine rather than enhance the joys of looking.
"I have personally not cared about the emphasis on the personal because I think that what matters is the work you do. When an artist talks about his own work he’s not very often discussing the work, he’s discussing quite possibly what he’d like it to be, or what he thinks it is. What can you do? The work itself outlives what people say about it"
Saul Leiter’s paintings have an unmistakable beauty. They burst with colour – yellows, turquoises, violets, reds. If you give them a few moments they will draw you in. Saul will tell you how much he enjoys the act of painting, how unlike some artists he doesn’t suffer when he paints - far from it. He is openly seeking a particular kind of beauty, and the enjoyment in the process is as obvious as it is in his photography. But you should be able to see this. No one should have to tell you. It is in his use of colour, the variety of marks, and in his sheer exuberance in painting that this emerges. The temptation is to try and explain it all in terms of something else that it isn’t, something more complicated or more personal. There may seem to be a horizon, and a sense of landscape or cityscape in many of these – though perhaps not. Everything in his painting is what it is.
"I have a great weakness that I’m ashamed to talk about. I have a great secret. I love painting! When I wake up in the morning and I’m depressed I go into the front room and pick up a brush and I feel much better"
This delight in colour and in brushstrokes is visible and contagious. It is there in the exuberant choice of hue, in the free marks, in the asymmetrical compositions – a wonderful expression of Leiter’s personality, his intelligence, wit, and pleasure in life.
There are echoes of his photography in his painting - and of his painting in his photography. The ochres and reds of a passing taxi, the patterns of out of focus lights in Times Square, such details often find their equivalents in both the colour and form of particular paintings. Equally the delight in multiple layers of paint and texture can be seen in many of his exquisite street shots, which frequently use windows and mirrors to frame, veil, and abstract. In both media his sensibility has been shaped by his first loves: the paintings of Renoir, of Matisse, and above all, of Bonnard. He began as a painter, and it is painting that still inspires him.
"Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I reach over to one of my 30 books on Bonnard…if I can’t find the one I want, I go out and buy another copy"
Leiter works on an intimate scale, often on scraps of cardboard and paper, sometimes almost translucent paper. An old returned envelope or a photographic print provides a surface for painting as readily as does a notebook of watercolour paper. For one series he used discarded book covers from his father’s library; for a more recent one he has been collecting the slivers of cardboard that wine stores place between bottles to stop them breaking. Many of the marks he makes are self-consciously calligraphic. They are both delicate and direct. One of his favorite books is of Zen brushwork, that tradition of immediacy flowing from a clear mind.
"The brush is one of the greatest inventions of mankind. Even if I don’t always use it correctly, I aspire to a kind of quality in the marks I make"
Built up from layers of gouache and watercolour, his paintings are palimpsests. He returns to earlier work that he finds in the stacks of sketches that fill his apartment, adding a light stroke here, improving, reworking, layering. This is a highly personal way of working, but it has no secret private meaning. It is not a diary, not a confession. If it brings joy to those who look at it, that is more than enough.
"In a very imperfect world it is good that something you’ve done gives pleasure to people"
There is a story, of course, of how he came to be as he is. Leiter’s father, a distinguished, scholar and rabbi, cried when Saul had his first exhibition, literally cried: ‘Now everyone will know’ he lamented. Saul’s artistic career, he jokes, began in adversity. Some seventy years on, this is still poignant. That’s where it all comes from. He wasn’t meant to be an artist, but, as he puts it, with a shrug in his voice, ‘What can you do? I preferred looking at paintings to sitting in a synagogue praying to a god I wasn’t sure was listening to me.’
Leaving Pittsburgh for New York, in part to get away from a life that others were planning for him, he took a different path. There he fell in with painters and photographers, worked as a fashion photographer, read, looked at paintings, enjoyed friendships, built up a personal portfolio of colour street photography that has only recently been fully appreciated and collected. But always he kept painting. Not every day, but most days, finding beauty and joy in brushstrokes when he wasn’t finding it in the street through his photography. Painting is at the core of his being. Despite the pressures to earn a living, he sidestepped attempts to show his work until he was ready. He quietly got on with what he wanted to get on with, living his own life, resisting the Siren calls of the art world. The resulting paintings, in portfolios and boxes, surround him in his New York home, like Saul himself, not seeking attention, but amply rewarding the interested observer who takes a step closer and stops awhile.
Today, his work is in major collections, is the subject of retrospectives and a recent television documentary, but that sort of attention and fame was never what drove him – his independence allowed him to do what he has done in his quiet and focused way. While his contemporaries were painting large-scale canvases for museum spaces, he carried on creating intimate abstractions on torn cardboard. Franz Kline once said to him ‘If you worked big, you could be one of the boys’. That wasn’t a choice he wanted to make, and he doesn’t regret it. Working small has brought different, purer rewards.
But don’t take all this as an explanation. The point is not to interpret, but to enjoy, to look at what is there. As he told me when I said I wanted to write about his art:
‘You’re going to write about my work? Really, and I mean this, the less said the better.’
Return to the Saul Leiter artist page here